Illustration: Nicole Rifkin

The Plot to Take Down Michael Tubbs

The young Black mayor of Stockton, California, was a progressive superstar. Then a feisty local blog decided he had to go.

The plot against Michael Tubbs, the first Black mayor of Stockton, California, and the youngest person ever to run a major U.S. city, was conceived even before he took the oath of office, at the age of 26, on January 9, 2017.

The mayorship was not a job for the faint of heart. The former incumbent, Anthony Silva, whose antics included donning medieval-style armor during a state of the city address and giving God a key to the city, had left office under a cloud — accused of everything from financial improprieties to hosting a teenage strip poker game. Meanwhile, the city once dubbed America’s “most miserable” had struggled to emerge from the devastating blow of the 2008 financial crisis and by 2013 had become the biggest U.S. municipality to declare bankruptcy. Poverty, food insecurity, illiteracy, homelessness, and other societal ills seemed intractable. Due in part to geography — Stockton is a convenient way station for Bay Area–bound narcotics traffic — the city clocked a homicide rate nearly triple the national average.

The city’s governing structure would complicate the challenge even further: Stockton has a “weak mayor” system, under which the mayor has little authority beyond that of the other city council members. Even with the mandate provided by Tubbs’ 70% landslide, his new office afforded little real power. Whatever wins he’d manage to notch would derive from his personal charisma, his outside connections, and his ability to line up the rest of the council behind his vision.

Nevertheless, over the next four years, Michael Tubbs would become a genuine Democratic superstar, a Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree, and the subject of a feature-length HBO documentary. He would spearhead a $20 million scholarship fund, bankrolled by his Stanford pal, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, and create a nationally recognized universal basic income program to provide $500 per month to some of the city’s poorest residents, fully funded by outside philanthropy.

But in doing so, Tubbs would have to contend with a constituent named Motecuzoma “Motec” Sanchez, née Patrick Powell, a local activist, perennial aspirant to elected office, and dedicated blogger and Facebook pugilist. In a tweet posted the night Tubbs was elected, Sanchez, 44, vowed to do everything in his power to destroy the city’s new chief executive. “No quarters given,” he wrote. “#itson”

In the winter of 2017, Tubbs began presiding over hearings of the Stockton City Council. Typically, such events are dry affairs — “as boring as watching Jell-O harden,” in the words of retired Stockton Record columnist Michael Fitzgerald — but the first few under Tubbs’ leadership turned out to be eventful. During these meetings, the gallery was packed with Black Lives Matter protesters, several of whom were there in support of relatives who’d been killed during confrontations with law enforcement.

During one of these meetings, Sanchez rose to address the council. He wanted Stockton to declare itself a sanctuary city and had prepared a resolution to that effect. Though Tubbs had not yet called on him, Sanchez demanded the floor. Perhaps if either man had backed down, the ensuing pandemonium might have been avoided. Neither did.

When Tubbs called for a recess, the BLM contingent rose to decry what they took to be a case of blatant censorship. “Let him speak!” they shouted. A pair of protesters sat down on the floor, refusing to move. Minutes later, some 20 police officers wearing riot helmets and carrying truncheons emerged from behind the dais and proceeded to push the protesters from the chamber and then, when they persisted on banging on the locked doors, down a flight of stairs and out into the night. The incident made for watchable footage, captured from multiple angles by one of Sanchez’s colleagues, Jemal Guillory, along with several of the participants, and the resulting posts to the 209 Times — a blog overseen by Sanchez — provided the kind of viral boost that any news site would relish. At the next city council meeting, it happened again.

Michael Tubbs, former Mayor of Stockton at his office. Photo: Nick Otto/AFP via Getty Images

Though Sanchez had a longstanding working relationship with the victims’ families, he denies intentionally provoking the confrontations. Guillory, a 29-year-old Marine Corps veteran and computer systems administrator, is somewhat more forthcoming, allowing that while he never communicated with the protesters directly, he suggested that Sanchez enlist their help. “I just said they should show up and make some shit happen,” Guillory says. “We get the coverage, they let some steam off, Stockton PD gets the overtime, and the city gets notoriety for responding to this a certain way. I think it’s all a good deal for everybody.”

Guillory, who is African American, notes that while Blacks make up just 11% of Stockton residents, “We’re still responsible for a lot of newsworthy events. So we knew that we could use those people kind of like influencers, right? They could give us some momentum. People didn’t have a reason to watch the news or council meetings until Black Lives Matter showed up three, four meetings in a row. It was a lot of drama going on—live and unfiltered drama. And people fell in love with it.”

Tubbs still can’t quite understand it. “You have this fairly progressive young Black man who’s the mayor, and my first council meeting, you have this quote-unquote Black Lives Matter group, most of whom were bused in from Oakland, shutting down city hall and causing all type of ruckus, but for no reason,” he recalls. “It happened every week, and they would record it, and it becomes ‘Mayor Tubbs lost control of the meeting, chaos ensued.’ It was a dystopian reality.”

The way the 209 Times team saw it, between the Stanford degree, the White House internship, and the top-down leadership style, Tubbs was in some ways a mirror of the traditional elitist hierarchy.

Not long after the first altercation, Sanchez messaged Guillory on Facebook. He was elated. “We’re definitely hitting a sensitive nerve,” he wrote. “209 Times passed 3,000 views in just two days and my video is at 11,000 views.”

“Haha,” Guillory replied. “Tubbs is doing this to himself.”

“That’s when the Facebook page took off,” Sanchez says now. “We had exclusive content. That was really the spark for the 209 Times, but it was also the point of no return for Michael Tubbs.” Sanchez lays what he considers a heavy-handed police response at Tubbs’ feet. “It was decided there is no chance for negotiation after this. He has to go.”

The pair began scheming to use the 209 Times to “decentralize power,” as Guillory described it, wresting the political narrative from the hands of the city’s old guard and destroying Michael Tubbs’ political ambitions in the process.

To many observers, the ascent of Michael Tubbs already looked like revolution. Sanchez and Guillory weren’t so sure. True, the new mayor had an insurgent energy and an inspiring personal story: Raised in South Stockton by a young single mother while his father served a prison sentence for robbery, he’d somehow managed to graduate from the state’s most esteemed university and get elected to city council at just 22. But the way the 209 Times team saw it, between the Stanford degree, the White House internship, and the top-down leadership style, Tubbs was in some ways a mirror of the traditional elitist hierarchy, a well-packaged representative of “a decades-old policy mindset where you make decisions for people as long as you have the team and the power to shield yourself from the blowback.”

Surveying the theater of operations, Guillory had spotted a vulnerability. “The local newspaper was dying out,” he recalls of the Stockton Record, the area broadsheet that has been publishing regularly since 1895, when the town was still emerging from its Gold Rush hangover to become the nucleus of the state’s agricultural boom. “They didn’t even really invest in the digital space — they still wanted to invest in their artifact media.”

The truth was the Record wasn’t doing much investing of any kind. “When I arrived at the paper in 2006, there were 85 people in the newsroom,” recalls Roger Phillips, a former sportswriter and city hall reporter. “Now there are eight.” That said, at least the Record still struggles along, unlike more than 2,000 local newspapers that have shuttered in the past 15 years.

By 2016, the waning of the Record’s influence made for a seductive opportunity for a pair of strivers with vision and discipline. “I said, ‘You know what? We could beat these guys. If we do this good enough, in about 10 years, we’ll be the only game in town,’” Guillory says.

The two made for a strong team. Guillory is an engineer, a dispassionate type who thinks in terms of diagrams and flowcharts. Sanchez is a more fiery character, with a combative temperament and a passion for civic engagement. “I could do all the technology stuff, all of the social engineering,” Guillory recalls. “However, you know, with marketing, right, you need to have influencers.”

Sanchez had one other characteristic that would become meaningful: Despite a political ideology that veered mostly left—he served as a Bernie Sanders delegate at the 2016 DNC—he harbored a visceral dislike for the city’s new progressive champion. Sanchez had been castigating Tubbs on Facebook since his election to the city council in 2013, once drawing heat by comparing him to the Adult Swim character Black Jesus. (He also accused several city political figures of being part of a “gay mafia.”)

Along with another colleague, a former corrections officer named Frank Gayaldo, and a handful of other volunteers, they would turn Sanchez’s blog into a formidable independent news source — an online counterweight to the Record. The 209 Times, which officially launched as a WordPress site on February 8, 2016—the main site and Facebook page would come later—would be scrappier, more nimble. And perhaps most important, it would be unencumbered by the newspaper’s supposed impartiality — one more sentimental legacy, as they saw it, of a bygone era.

But a few good video clips aren’t enough to turn a blog into a powerhouse. For that, you need a sustained, data-driven audience development strategy. Making use of Google’s free analytics tools, in combination with publicly available voter data and the microtargeting capabilities of Facebook’s ad platform, Guillory began by identifying a core readership. “The first people that we targeted were pissed-off voters from the election,” he says. “Whether they were pissed off that Trump won or they were pissed off that Silva lost, it didn’t matter. We could carry that energy. We could give them content. We could gain trust. I had the data, so we had a hypothesis on what their confirmation biases would be, and anytime they visited the site, they could get that content.”

Since stories about crime and homelessness tended to get the most engagement, 209 Times set out to provide as much of it as possible. As Tubbs’ senior adviser Daniel Lopez put it, “Your boring actual news will never keep up with, like, ‘Hey, these homeless people are having sex in front of a house.’ That stuff works.” Once they’d attracted a set of dedicated followers, the site increasingly amped up the political content, focusing on a few ongoing storylines with clear villains, narratives designed to keep readers liking and sharing. Sometimes, he admits, they’d intentionally share the posts on Tubbs’ page or in other areas where his supporters would see it. “Because guess what?” he explains. “The more they look at it, the more they comment, the more they talk shit, the more people that are going to see it.” (The strategy worked: 209 Times currently has 120,000 followers on Instagram and nearly 100,000 on Facebook, more than the number of votes cast in the mayor’s race.)

Sanchez says his animosity for Tubbs dates back to a vote by the council not to reopen a public library that had been closed amid the financial crisis. (Tubbs has always insisted the library should only be reopened when it could be fully funded, as it was in 2017.) But Guillory sees the library issue, along with the 209 Times’ many other attempts to paint Tubbs as a corrupt phony, as little more than a pretext. “That was just bullshit,” he says. “He was the biggest celebrity in Stockton. So we just saw him as an influencer to help us get people on the platform. And it was so successful that Motec thought it was the only play that we could use, and he took it and ran.”

Sanchez dubbed his crusade against Michael Tubbs Operation Icarus, in honor of the mythological Greek youth who melted his artificial wings by flying too close to the sun.

It’s not a bad analogy. For all of his dedication to Stockton, Tubbs’ great vulnerability, according to one local political consultant, was the impression that he sought the job as a stepping stone to bigger things. “We looked at it like, ‘This guy is so full of himself, in his mind, he’s already sitting in the Oval Office,’” Sanchez explains. “He’s so focused on building his political celebrity that he is neglecting the home base. So, while he’s off conquering new lands, we took the home base away from him.”

One reason the framing was effective was that it contained a grain of truth. Given that the mayor of Stockton is in many ways a figurehead, Tubbs understood that his growing notoriety and connections were among the most powerful tools at his disposal. If his personal story helped bring national attention to Stockton — not to mention philanthropy, government grants, and investment dollars — he’d be crazy not to milk it. In all, more than $100 million poured into the city under his watch, and Stockton recently posted a $13 million budget surplus.

Meanwhile, in part due to its racial overtones, the narrative of a young Black mayor who’d grown too big for his britches gained traction, becoming the lens through which a growing percentage of the city viewed Tubbs’ signature achievements. Although cordial relationships with political figures like Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Michael Bloomberg — not to mention all the glowing national media attention — were seen by the mayor’s allies as powerful assets, the 209 Times treated them with suspicion, evidence of an absentee mayor who’d forgotten his roots. When Tubbs endorsed Bloomberg and volunteered for his presidential campaign, the 209 Times claimed he was “caught working [a] full time job in New York.”

Disingenuous though they may be, such tactics are standard political warfare, and the 209 Times is hardly the first media entity to wield them against a public official. Fox News is perhaps the most prominent contemporary practitioner, but the time-honored technique — slathering a germ of actual reporting with a thick gloss of perspective-driven storytelling, innuendo, and ridicule — would likely be familiar to anyone who’s ever paged through a tabloid newspaper.

Sometimes, Tubbs made it easy. Early in his term, he decided the city should stop subsidizing a pair of public golf courses (a roughly $800,000 annual expense) and considered a proposal by the city manager to convert one of them, located on Stockton’s wealthier north side, into affordable housing, sparking a major outcry eagerly promoted by the 209 Times. “You never get between a white, middle-class taxpayer and their perceived property values,” notes Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, a longtime observer of the political scene and executive director of a local environmental nonprofit. Tubbs’ adoption of Advance Peace, a successful initiative designed to prevent gun violence by providing job training, mentorship, counseling, and financial stipends to young people tempted by gang culture, was easily caricatured by the 209 Times as “Cash for Criminals” and described as “a controversial program to pay ‘active shooters’ not to shoot.” (Though the blog claimed it used “taxpayer money,” the program was privately funded.) And Tubbs’ celebrated UBI program, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), was a pilot serving just 125 individuals, generating some predictable resentment among nonparticipants.

“Our goal has never been to be fair. That’s not one of our requirements. We let the public know, point-blank, we are biased.”

If the 209 Times had limited their attacks to those issues, however, Tubbs might well have won a second term. Instead, they bashed him relentlessly from every angle they could find, often floating baseless or misleading allegations of fraud or malfeasance. They claimed the Stockton Scholars program had never been fully funded and wasn’t actually giving out the scholarships it promised — a false storyline based on documents filed before the scholarship really began. They hammered the idea so relentlessly, according to Tubbs’ senior adviser Daniel Lopez, that some school administrators wondered if kids were wasting their time applying. As the mayor’s communications director, Lopez tried to fight back. “I did a post saying we tripled scholarships,” he recalls. “That got three likes. The 209 Times did a post later on about our young people fighting at the mall. That got hundreds of interactions.”

Another damaging storyline claimed the mayor had squandered $60 million in funds for the homeless, when in fact the city had only received some $6.5 million. “People just believed it,” Lopez recalls. “I would constantly hear, ‘Where’s the $60 million? How come Tubbs is pocketing the money?’ It didn’t even make sense.”

They slammed him for leaving a council meeting early to go to his own wedding and for attending a conference of mayors in Paris. They interviewed his half-brother about Tubbs’ supposed fraternal indifference. They blamed him for the homeless crisis, going so far as to nickname any encampment “Tubbsville,”and accused him of planning to “essentially make Stockton the official homeless capital for the Northern part of the State of California” by converting the county fairgrounds into a “homeless reservation.” (The story was based on an idea discussed at a meeting Tubbs didn’t even attend. The Record refuted it a week later, by which time it had already gained significant traction on social media.)

Sanchez readily acknowledges that some of the attacks were unfair. “Our goal has never been to be fair,” he says. “That’s not one of our requirements. We let the public know, point-blank, we are biased. We do have an agenda. Every time we suspect an enemy is slipping, they will be hit at any and every opportunity. Them and everyone affiliated with them.”

While Tubbs took more fire than most, he is hardly the only Stocktonian to have drawn the unwanted attention of the local blog. Talk to regulars on Stockton’s political scene — particularly those allied with the mayor — and similar stories abound. When Dyane Burgos Medina, a social worker, ran for a seat on the city council in 2018, the 209 Times published a Facebook post linking her to the tragic death of a three-year-old in foster care. “Can you confirm or deny if you were the social worker for San Joaquin County in this case?” read the unbylined post. “From public records we see you left shortly after the incident and allegations persist. We don’t want to go off of allegations so we’re reaching out to you and doing our due diligence.” Of course, the usual practice is to contact the subject of a damaging accusation for comment before publishing it. Medina, who had nothing to do with the incident, was defeated by 209 Times ally Christina Fugazi, for whom Sanchez once served as an intern.

For Dan Arriola, a deputy district attorney and 2020 candidate for mayor of nearby Tracy, California, the hit piece came four days before the election. “Should a Deputy District Attorney have an active profile on a website that has been investigated multiple times for human trafficking?” the site asked, a reference to the gay-oriented dating app Grindr. Arriola fired back in his own post, but by then the damage had been done. He lost by 6%. “There is no privacy for public officials,” Sanchez says.

One effective 209 Times tactic is to file a complaint against someone with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, and then, while the matter is being reviewed, to describe the person as “under investigation.” Lange Luntao, a Tubbs friend dating back to high school, is a member of the school board and the executive director of the Reinvent Stockton Foundation. After Luntao voted to award a contract to a charter school company, the 209 Times pounced, noting that the company had previously employed him as a teacher. Although the job carried no managerial authority and he didn’t stand to profit in any way from the contract, the blog painted Luntao’s role as a conflict of interest. Not only did he, too, lose reelection, but even some family members began to question his honesty. “My own dad, love him to death, all he needed to see is ‘Lange Luntao under investigation,’ and he calls me and says, ‘Are you okay? Did you do something wrong?’”

Journalists also became subjects of the 209 Times’ ire. The blog went after Record writers like Michael Fitzgerald and Roger Phillips, and when a local TV reporter aired a segment about Stockton’s declining murder rate, the site dug up a domestic violence incident from the reporter’s past and issued a warning to other journalists, asking, “Who else wants to serve as a publicist for Michael Tubbs?”

Motecuzoma Sanchez (left); Jemal Guillory (right). Photos courtesy of the subjects.

Eventually, even Jemal Guillory found himself under attack — slammed in a Facebook post, while making his own run for a council seat, for allegedly falling behind on child support payments and faking a foot injury attributed to his military service. At the top of the post was his photo, with the word “LOSER” stamped across it in big red letters.

By that time, Guillory was no longer associated with the 209 Times. Over the course of the blog’s first year, he had become disenchanted with Sanchez’s approach. Rather than decentralizing power, Guillory’s original goal, his partner seemed intent on acquiring it for himself. “At the end of the day, I just want people to be aware and to be able to make an informed decision,” Guillory says. “And Motec wanted the decision that he wanted.” He also feared that what he saw as Sanchez’s lackadaisical approach to campaign finance law would eventually catch up with him. And he became convinced that the blog’s penchant for personal attacks had fatally tarnished a brand he’d hoped one day to sell to a media company. At the end of 2017, Guillory walked away to pursue other projects.

According to Sanchez, Guillory is overstating his role in developing the 209 Times and piloting its successful growth strategy. “Guy writes a few posts and he thinks he’s the co-founder,” he scoffs. GEN viewed a lengthy chat history between the two men that supports Guillory’s account.

In late 2019, a dark-horse candidate jumped into the race to become mayor of Stockton. He didn’t have a lot of money, or powerful friends, or a lengthy résumé of community service. But he did have a secret weapon: He controlled a widely read local media enterprise that covered his candidacy in glowing terms while relentlessly disparaging his rivals. Better yet, it did so without disclosing his role. The relationship wasn’t entirely a secret; close readers of the site likely noted the connection. Political insiders were certainly wise to it. But casual readers probably had no idea that the many posts extolling the candidate’s intelligence, public works, and deep commitment to the city had been written, or at least vetted, by the candidate himself.

It was an ideal subject for a 209 Times exposé: a delicious takedown of an overeager political wannabe and a self-righteous news organization manipulating its readers. Or at least, it would have been, if the candidate in question weren’t Motec Sanchez. Though he got just 11% of the vote, a fourth-place finish in a crowded “jungle primary,” it was enough to hold Tubbs under 50% and force him to compete in the general election, which Sanchez says was his goal all along.

The 209 Times owner denies he personally penned the posts about his various endeavors. “I had other people that could do that for me,” Sanchez says. But though he claims to have stepped back from some editorial duties during the campaign, he nonetheless allows, “I ultimately have full control of everything.”

Asked if he thinks it was appropriate to cover his own campaign — much less host a “candidate forum” at the local mall that he himself attended as a candidate — without clear disclosure, Sanchez is unrepentant. “I mean, that’s a no-brainer,” he says. “Why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I use my own creation to promote my own [campaign]? Like, if my team, who are part of the 209 crew because they believe in me, wanted to make sure the community knew who I was and what I thought about these issues, why not?” Besides, he observes, “Bloomberg didn’t give up Bloomberg News, right?”

It’s a fair point. “I don’t want the reporters I’m paying to write a bad story about me!” the mogul half-joked during a 2018 interview before throwing his hat in the ring. “I don’t want them to be independent.” Once the billionaire entered the presidential race, however, Bloomberg editor John Micklethwait announced that the organization would refrain from doing in-depth investigative stories on its owner or his Democratic opponents, and the organization regularly reminded its audience about the connection between the media company and the candidate.

“I used to joke, ‘Man, this is some Russian disinformation shit, like, some Hillary Clinton shit,’ you know?”

Though Sanchez could eventually be fined for failing to acknowledge his ownership of the 209 Times in disclosure forms required of those seeking public office, no law prohibits a candidate from secretly promoting himself on a blog he owns, says Ann Ravel, a former chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission and commissioner of the Federal Election Commission under President Barack Obama’s administration. “But I think you could argue it should be a violation,” she adds. “I think it’s disgusting, I really do. It undermines our democratic process, because it leaves the public no way to confirm or deny that those things [they read] are true, and it ends up with decision-making that is not in the best interest of the community.”

It’s not only the 209 Times’ coverage of its owner that violates established journalistic practices. According to Guillory, although the blog is a low-overhead operation run mostly on volunteer labor, it does accept payment from officials looking for favorable coverage. “We would just say, ‘If you want to advertise, you can pay like a hundred bucks for a three-by-three ad in the Record, or you can give us a hundred bucks and we’ll run a series of articles for you,’” he explains. If true, the practice could constitute a violation of FTC guidelines, which require that such posts be labeled as advertising. Sanchez emphatically denies that the site accepts payments in exchange for coverage. “We choose the candidates we want to support,” he says, “and anyone who advertises with us, we have supported from day one.”

Speaking a few days after his loss, Tubbs says he hasn’t really started thinking about his future. Speculation that he might wind up working in the Biden administration is premature, he says. “I’m not even in conversations yet. But I will always be fighting for justice and for equity and for making sure our country lives up to what it says on paper.” Meanwhile, Tubbs still sounds incredulous at the turn of events. “I used to joke, ‘Man, this is some Russian disinformation shit, like, some Hillary Clinton shit,’ you know? Like, ‘Thank god it’s not sophisticated,’” he says. “But I’m also not on Facebook, so I didn’t see how it was getting traction.”

I ask whether he thinks he should have fought back harder. “We did communications. We did a bunch of interviews,” Tubbs says. “But you have this disinformation site that’s designed to play on people’s biases, to play on racism, to create a false narrative, and people see that every single day. There’s nothing I could have done. We had a whole damn movie! Look, I ran to be mayor, I didn’t run to be a media owner. So I think the responsibility’s on society writ large.”

Even according to his supporters, though, Tubbs made some unforced errors. He often looked at his cellphone during council meetings, lending credence to the impression that he had better things to do. He had little patience for “kissing babies and glad-handing,” as his best friend Lange Luntao put it, “which especially in a place like Stockton is important.” And his focus on the neediest residents, while noble, left other constituencies feeling neglected. Finally, the Bloomberg endorsement may have dented his image as a progressive champion. Given that Bloomberg’s philanthropic foundations had also provided some $500,000 for local school reform initiatives, the connection left Tubbs vulnerable to the charge that he was doing the bidding of a wealthy benefactor.

Tubbs, who had endorsed Kamala Harris before she dropped out, said the Bloomberg team had won him over with a promise of a meaningful policy role. “They said, ‘We want you to be national co-chair and have input,’” he says. “To me, that was a very appealing opportunity to shape the debate. Also, looking at the polling data, it became very apparent to me that a moderate white man was going to be the nominee. It was between Biden and Bloomberg, and I just chose the wrong one.”

Among Tubbs’ supporters, bewildered by his loss, one hears considerable speculation about larger forces at play — shadowy figures behind the scenes.

For Mike Fitzgerald, what happened in Stockton is indicative of larger trends — most notably, the decline of local journalism and the proliferation of websites like 209 Times eager to fill the void. “Unlike newspapers,” he points out, “the people operating these sites may not have a degree in journalism, or any experience in journalism, and they may not even have journalism on their minds.”

For Sanchez, that’s a point of pride. “There’s things we’ll post that you would never see like a professional news source post,” he says. “But I don’t have to worry about you calling into question how I operate under this profession, because this is not my profession.” Asked if he regrets anything the site posted, he says no. “If something was unfair, it was always by design,” he explains. “It was intentional, like, every single thing, every single word we used was tactical. And the ends justified the means, right? It produced the desired results. We had a 100% success rate in the races that we were trying to affect.”

While that’s not entirely true, it’s close. In all, Sanchez believes the 209 Times is responsible for helping their preferred candidates win not only the Stockton mayorship but also a state assembly seat, an additional council seat, a seat on the board of supervisors, and three school board races, as well as preventing Arriola from winning the Tracy mayorship. (The blog previously played a role in the resignation of the school superintendent and in unseating the San Joaquin County sheriff.) “We had such an impact that the full gravity of it has yet to be realized,” Sanchez says. Asked why, despite his mostly liberal orientation, he worked so hard to elect a conservative Republican, Sanchez notes that the city’s weak mayor system means it doesn’t really matter who’s in charge. “The mayor has no authority,” he says. If the 209 Times often argued the opposite when it came to Tubbs, blaming him for issues over which he had no control, he says Tubbs asked for it by claiming credit when it was unwarranted.

Among Tubbs’ supporters, bewildered by his loss, one hears considerable speculation about larger forces at play — shadowy figures behind the scenes. Some invoke corporate interests such as Big Oil and Big Water. Others point to the supposed machinations of a local attorney, whom one source referred to as “the Moriarty at the center of the web” and another described as an evil Yoda “who’s like a cancer on our community.” Behind all of these conspiratorial musings is the widespread conviction that the real goal of the 209 Times is to control the city’s purse strings and award contracts to favored interests, and that only with secret financial backing could a local blog hope to upend the political establishment. All of which may well be true — or not. There is, as it happens, a more disturbing possibility: that by using free or inexpensive tools provided by America’s biggest tech companies, a few determined actors, with a lot of time on their hands, a knack for information warfare, and some basic digital media savvy, can have an outsized impact — especially on an unwitting populace.

The 209 Times is hardly an anomaly. Even as the president was making a habit of describing any media outlet that dared criticize him as “fake news,” a network of some 1,300 actual fake news sites was being activated across the country. Designed to resemble traditional local news outlets, they are instead pushing out, as the New York Times put it, “propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals.”

For his part, Sanchez is already plotting to expand throughout the northern Central Valley. “We’re just getting started, and there’s a lot more work to be done,” he says. “We’re going to start getting more boots on the ground to understand how we can help and empower other communities.”

“This is evolution,” Guillory says. “You can’t stop this. You need to take control of it, because if you don’t do it, somebody else will.”

“Everyone is worried about deepfakes,” Fitzgerald warns, “but these shallow fakes are just as bad. You don’t need high tech to monkey-wrench a city or stick a knife in the body politic. All you need are some unscrupulous guys with a website.”

Medium editor-at-large, with bylines in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the New York Times and numerous other publications. ¶

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